Carolyn Muir leaned against the railing of the veranda outside her bedroom. The children and Martha had long since gone to sleep, she hoped their dreams were peaceful. Although she hoped for a peaceful night for them, her own thoughts were far from serene. Tonight was the one night of the year she always dreaded, the anniversary of her last night with her husband. It was her last night of blissful ignorance, she longed to touch that picture of the idyllic life again, but it was gone.
Five years now, was that the paper anniversary? Did a death certificate suffice? Five years she had spent wondering if there was anything she could have done differently. The evening itself had been so normal, a quiet dinner at home, then tucking the kids into bed. How could she have known that in less than 24 hours her life would be anything but normal?
The darkness smothered the bay, there was no moon tonight to guide her thoughts to a happier place. She couldn't see the water, all she had was the sound of the waves hitting the shore. This sound usually brought her comfort, but tonight, try as she might to search for comfort, there was none to be found. The darkness was oppressive, her thoughts were oppressive. Most days she confronted her reality with grace and fortitude. She had children to take care of, to love, to raise, to comfort. They helped each other recover from the proverbial knife through the heart pain they had all been through.
Carolyn felt a presence behind her, for one brief fraction of a second she thought it might be Richard dropping by to say "hello" or "I'm sorry" or even "how are you?" Of course it was not Richard, it was the Captain stopping by for a moment or two of pleasant conversation. How could she tell him his presence was not welcome tonight?
"Good evening, Madame."
"Captain," she replied as noncommittally as possible and without turning toward him.
"The sea is unsettled tonight. There is an old legend that a restless sea is trying to tell us something."
"Oh? I hadn't heard that," she answered still looking out over the coast, trying to lose herself in the darkness.
The Captain clasped his hands behind his back and ventured a couple of steps toward her, "most people haven't, it's one of tales seamen kept to themselves."
"And yet you share it with me?"
"Yes," was his only response out loud. His thoughts, on the other hand, continued along the lines of, "if I could I would carry you off to sea and we would explore every exotic location and legend the world had to offer."
They were both quiet.
Carolyn was inwardly reflecting on the bizarre sense of humor the universe seemed to have, trading her one dead man for another. The Captain was strong, and smart with a wealth of experience; she had no doubt that if he were alive their story together would be different. As it was she did her best to keep thoughts of him out of her mind and keep her focus on the daily tasks of living. She was grateful for his presence in their lives, he was so good with Jonathan, a wonderful role model. In her most whimsical moments she pretended the Captain was alive and that they were all living happily ever after here in Gull Cottage; but happily ever after was something she stopped believing in five years ago.
That made her angry. It had all been so simple. Fall in love. Check. Get married. Check. Have kids. Check and check. Live happily ever after. Check please. Richard had checked out instead. Their world had been shattered, and sometimes she was livid with him for deserting his family and leaving her a widow. Widows weren't women her age. They were older, they'd lived their lives.
It took Carolyn a long time to come to terms with her widowhood. At first she didn't notice, she thought people were just staying away, giving her time to grieve. Then when she tried to reassemble some semblance of normalcy in her life, her friends seemed distant, uncaring. Looking back on it now Carolyn realized they probably just didn't know how to interact with her.
The final straw was the loss of her Saturday nights. Every Saturday she and Richard had joined two other couples for an evening of dining and dancing. She treasured those times together. After Richard's death she went out with their friends for what turned out to be the final time. She didn't fit in with them anymore. Not that any of them were trying to ostracize her, in fact it was just the opposite, everyone was trying too hard to pretend that nothing had changed. Trying to ignore the elephant in the room only made the elephant's presence more obvious.
Carolyn never came to terms with being the fifth wheel, it was never something she had had to contend with before. There she was, the third woman with two couples, all of them trying to go on as if nothing had happened. She saw the pity in the eyes of her friends, each couple dancing at different times so she wouldn't be left alone at the table. She of course was polite enough to suggest they dance whenever they wished, just as her friends were polite enough to demur from such actions. The men were, of course, also polite enough to dance with Carolyn, dances which no one truly enjoyed due to the high level of discomfort of all the participants. Everyone was so damned polite it was suffocating.
It wasn't long after that disastrous night that she had decided to move away from Philadelphia, it was time for a fresh start.
"Madame?" she heard called softly.
Startled, Carolyn gripped the rail for support. It suddenly occurred to her that if she wanted to know about death, she had the perfect talking companion right here.
"Are your thoughts troubled, Mrs. Muir?"
"Mrs. Muir," in name only Carolyn thought. How ironic. Yes, she still wore her wedding band, but how could she truly be a Mrs. without a Mr.? Did she still wear it out of habit? Was it a desperate attempt to hold onto a past that would never return? Was she still clinging to it as a way to keep Richard in her life? Was it a talisman; something that she could hold and wouldn't slip away from her? Sometimes she didn't know herself.
Realizing she was for all intents and purposes ignoring the Captain, she finally turned to face him, but still leaned against the railing, "I'm sorry, Captain, I'm afraid I am not a good companion tonight."
"I would beg to differ, you are always an excellent companion."
Carolyn bowed her head and clasped her hands together hoping to find some solace, some comfort, some way not to burst into tears over the Captain's kind words.
The Captain saw her unsettled state, but was a little unsure how to proceed. As much as he saw Gull Cottage as his ship, he certainly couldn't demand answers from Carolyn the way he could a member of his crew. He could sense this wasn't a moment for a seductive masculine charm as well. Those were his two best options and neither would serve him here; perhaps that was why he cherished their time together so much, he didn't have to play a role with her. This gave him the way to proceed, he dropped all pretense and addressed her, "please tell me why you are so distant tonight." He hoped she wouldn't just brush him aside and insult him by saying nothing was wrong.
She dropped her hands back to the rail and looked up at him. His eyes were so expectant of an answer, so empathic, she couldn't just wave him off, but she couldn't just blurt out the fact that she was mourning her husband either, so she tried to steer the conversation to a general topic, but one which she had been turning over in her mind since moving in to Gull Cottage, "why are you here?" she asked, not in a demanding tone, more one of curiosity.
"A few quiet moments of conversation before sleep are always conducive to a good night's rest."
This was all nice and true, but not the answer Carolyn was looking for, she would have to be blunt, "You're here. Richard isn't. Why?"
Then the penny dropped for the Captain, he now knew why tonight was significant for her. The conversation they were about to have was destined to happen from the time she moved in to Gull Cottage. "It was today?"
"Tomorrow, actually...I just have a harder time with the night before, wondering if there was anything I could have done differently, wondering if he knew he would be dead in 24 hours time. The day of I more easily accept the truth instead of trying to postpone it."
"Please sit down, Madame," he said as he moved to the side of the chair. She walked over and sat down, making herself comfortable. The fact that this conversation had been inevitable, didn't make the topic and easier to broach. The Captain once again clasped his hands behind his back and paced as he so often had on the deck of his ship. Several ways of starting this talk crossed his mind but none seemed equal to the task, he finally gave up and faced her, this was almost his undoing, the look in her eyes was so hopeful, so expectant. She was looking up at him as though he had the answers to all of life's mysteries, but of course he had none. He hated disappointing her.
"You don't know, do you?" she said gently.
He sat on the railing, "I can only tell you my experience. I was angry when I realized I had died. I felt I had so much more life yet to be lived, so many plans I had yet to implement. They were all stripped away from me after I died. The injustice infuriated me. I saw everyone hovering around my body and I wanted them all to go away, if they went away, I'd be just fine. The housekeeper, the doctor, the constable; they all clucked over me and tutted over the sadness of it all. I wanted to yell that I was still there and not dead at all. There were no pearly gates, no choir of angels. Just a frustrated man who saw his life snatched away and was powerless to do anything about it.
Carolyn saw the scene in her mind's eye and for the first time came to terms with the fact that the Captain died in the very room she slept in. It was a fact that she had of course known, but up until this moment it was just another line item in the catalog of the house: portrait over fireplace, binnacle, Captain dying in the house; it was a fact, one which the Captain didn't pay much attention to, so why should she? Now she was seeing how much his unfinished business weighed on him. But didn't Richard have unfinished business? Leaving two young children to raise seemed a lot more unfinished than plans for a house.
"Then I heard a commotion outside, I tried to open the windows to see the cause, but couldn't get the latches to move, instead I fell through the windows. It was a bit of a surprise."
"But you can move the latches now."
"Now yes, it took a little time to get my bearings in this new existence of mine."
He continued, "the undertaker had pulled up to the house. I couldn't watch them remove my body."
"I don't know many people who could."
He managed a small smile for her, "I found myself on the beach. I didn't know at the time how I got there. I wandered. I found I could wander among the citizens of Schooner Bay. I saw the effect my death had on the people of my hometown; some were shocked, some felt I got what I deserved." He crossed his arms and tugged his ear, "I have to say I was gratified by the number of women donning black for me."
"At first my death was ruled accidental, then the inquest changed everything. Suddenly I was a pariah. People no longer talked about me, I was to be hushed up and forgotten. This made me even angrier, I'd say it was around this time the first rumors of Gull Cottage being haunted first appeared."
"They aren't rumors if they are true," Carolyn quipped.
"Touche, Madame. Life went on, people forgot about me, ships came and went. I watched them go, unable to accompany them on their voyages, or even venture on any voyage. I wanted vindication, I wanted my name cleared. One hundred years later the sting still hasn't dissipated."
The Captain realized he had been talking for some time, but hadn't really answered her question, "I thank you for you indulgence in listening to my story, Madame."
"I'd hardly call listening to anything you have to say an 'indulgence'."
"Thank you, however it doesn't ease your pain tonight. I wish I had more answers for you. After one hundred years of contemplation all I can tell you is that some people move on, some people stay. It's an ineffective platitude which doesn't resolve your question."
"Your presence here confirms some sort of an afterlife, and there are so many different places here on Earth, the afterlife must hold many options as well."
"'In my Father's house there are many mansions.'"
"There are many paths, no one has all the answers. Some don't even know the questions or that there are questions to be asked. I can't answer for Richard, I don't know what he was faced with after his death. Maybe he did see pearly gates, maybe he was pulled away by a higher force, maybe he had responsibilities to take care of on the other side."
"You've never been able to visit any other mansions?"
He shook his head, "no, their doors are locked to me just as the doors I walk through are locked to you. I do feel they are there though."
"How do you know that?"
"By the same reasoning you use. I'm here and I don't think this is the final destination." Maybe it wasn't final, but since Carolyn had arrived he had been having thoughts that he wouldn't mind spending eternity here with her. She and the children seemed to be the answer to his one hundred years of loneliness, not that he would ever admit that to her.
Carolyn went out on a limb, "sometimes I think he might come looking for us, just to see if we are all right. I don't think geographical location matters to him anymore. Like he can focus on us and see us. It's silly, I know." She looked at the Captain and saw nothing but compassion in his eyes which gave her strength to continue, "then I wonder if maybe...you had ever seen him? That...maybe...you could talk with him even if I couldn't." This had been difficult for Carolyn to say, she moved all the way to the back of the chair and turned away from the Captain.
"Yes," she whispered.
"Alas, I have not had any contact from him; but if he were to pay a call, I am sure he would find a way to communicate with you directly instead of wasting his time with me. A gruff old sea captain cannot compare to a beautiful wife."
She smiled at him, "thank you, Captain."
They were silent for a while, each lost in thoughts of death and how to cope with it. Eventually Carolyn decided she was going to have to deal with this date for the rest of her life. She could either focus on the past, which only brought back the roller coaster of emotions she was on in the first stage of grief; one moment fine, the next in tears. It had been horrible, but it was past, it was time to focus on the here and now. Here and now she was building a new life with her children. The kids seemed happy, they both had plenty of friends and activities. Carolyn saw Martha as the ambassador of Gull Cottage, going out into the real world as spokesperson for the family.
Her own adjustment to life in Schooner Bay had been one of ups and downs; she didn't regret the move for one moment, it had been the correct choice for her family. The solitude of Gull Cottage suited her very well and let her create her world as she saw fit. Gull Cottage was her sanctuary, the one place she fit in. She didn't fit in with the singles crowd, there weren't any other single people in Schooner Bay with children. Nor did she fit in with the married couples, three would always be a crowd, and she didn't like the way some of the wives looked at her when they noticed the way their husbands were looking at her.
Carolyn realized she lived in a netherworld, a combination of daily routine chores and the surreal. She interacted in the community when necessary, but wasn't really a part of it. Her closest friend was a ghost, which, she mused, was rather appropriated for someone living in a netherworld. All in all she realized her
life here was unique and definitely one she wished to continue. She looked over at the Captain and silently admired him for being such a stalwart presence for both Jonathan and herself. The pain in her heart ached less when he was around.
Carolyn sighed, she had to try and get some sleep. Tomorrow would bring memories of its own and she would have to be strong for her children. How would they cope? Fortunately it was a school day so there was that distraction. She and Martha hadn't discussed the day at all, but she couldn't really see Martha bringing up the subject, "Excuse me, Mrs. Muir, would you like a cake at dinner?" Carolyn laughed, this was hardly the kind of anniversary to celebrate with cake.
Her laugh drew the Captain's attention, "something humorous, Madame?"
"I'm sorry Captain, just a stray thought about anniversary cake," but didn't elaborate. "Thank you for being here tonight...and every night...and day." She stood, the Captain stood in respect. "I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Of course. Madame, I will always be here for you."
She looked at him, seeing the truth of this statement in his eyes. What he saw in her eyes was a pain he wished he could remove from them forever.
"Thank you, Captain."
"Your servant, Madame."
"Good night." he didn't wish her pleasant dreams as he felt it would be the proverbial slap in the face. He watched her go inside and close the doors, he materialized on the widow's walk trying not to reflect on the bitterness of that name this particular night. The unfairness of the universe weighed heavily on him tonight as he paced, it wasn't fair that such a woman was left a widow. She was a woman who belonged treasured in a lucky man's arms. "Poor Richard," he thought, he must have been just as bereft of her as she was of him.
There was nothing he could do for Richard, but there was something he could do for his widow. After the lights in the Master Cabin had been turned off, he materialized by her bedside. Stealthy sitting on the edge he talked to her of golden sunsets on a faraway beach. The beach was inhabited by her children, the three of them played together, their laughter bringing them all joy. His words must have brought Carolyn some level of comfort as she smiled in her sleep. The Captain stayed with her all night, watching over her while she slept and keeping any nightmares far away from her.